The Simple Basics Of Journalism

22 April 2004

The Media Judges the Media
by Craig J. Cantoni

April 22, 2004

Should former Enron CEO Jeffrey Skilling be the judge in his fraud trial? Silly question, unless you belong to the establishment media, in which case you are accustomed to the media judging its own fraudulent practices instead of letting outsiders into its cloister to make an independent judgment.

A case in point:

On April 21, 2004, the PBS NewsHour had a segment on the fabrications of USA Today’s star reporter, Jack Kelley. Sitting in judgment of Kelley and the mainstream media in general were two guests, both cloister members. One was Geneva Overholser, an articulate journalism professor at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is not only a cloister member, but she also trains novitiates to become cloister members. The other was USA Today staffer Susan Page, who was proud that the paper had appointed an investigative committee consisting of—yeah, you guessed it—cloister members.

This is akin to the Catholic Church handling its own sex abuse problem.

Professor Overholser said that most broadsheets are ”fine newspapers.” Certainly she has to know that many newspapers are losing readers and credibility, which is hardly a sign of doing a fine job. Yet based on what she said on PBS, she is apparently unwilling to take any responsibility as a teacher of journalists for the loss of readers and credibility.

Both Overholser and Page said that the solution was for newspapers to establish ombudsman positions, which are almost always filled by insiders on the newspaper payroll. In other words, let readers complain to an insider about problems inside the cloister. Sure, that’ll work. It certainly worked for boys abused by priests.

Here’s an example of how it doesn’t work in the newspaper business: Several years ago, a reporter by the name of Julie Amparano was fired by The Arizona Republic for fabricating stories. (Note: Thanks to the open-mindedness and graciousness of the editorial editor, the Republic, which is the largest circulation newspaper next to USA Today in the Gannett empire, runs a freelance opinion column of mine, for which I have never accepted remuneration)

At least a year before Amparano was fired, I had told several of the paper’s editors and the ombudsman at the time that Amparano’s stories had a bad odor. In view of the fact that Amparano was subsequently rewarded with her own column, my feedback was apparently ignored.

I believe my feedback was ignored because, like Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Amparano was a diversity hire. She had been hired from The Wall Street Journal to cover Hispanic issues because she was Hispanic. She was eventually fired for fabricating a story about a racist who had hated Hispanics, only to discover later in life that he was Hispanic.

This is an example of how one wrong leads to another wrong. The first wrong was the newspaper disregarding long-standing discrimination law, which clearly says that it is illegal to base hiring decisions on race or ethnicity. It doesn’t matter that all big-city dailies engage in the practice or that the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission looks the other way when it comes to favored races. What matters is the message that the practice sends to the newsroom, a message that it is okay to break the rules and then to rationalize the rule-breaking with convoluted logic.

But don’t expect Professor Overholser to speak out against the practice and risk being branded a heretic by fellow professors, the vast majority of whom worship at the altar of affirmative action and, as surveys show, vote Democratic.

Which brings me to an issue that is more important to the media’s credibility than an occasional fabrication: the perception that the media has a liberal bias.

The simple-minded blowhards who host conservative talk-radio shows claim that the perception is real. The blowhards are wrong.

Judging by what they write, many reporters are simply misinformed, illiterate in economics, intellectually lazy, and disdainful of free markets, suburbia, the auto, Wal-Mart and the people who shop at Wal-Mart. At the same time, they are enamored with central planning, coercion, collectivism, taxes, nannyism, growth controls, subsidized downtown development, public transit and special rights for special racial groups.

Hmm, maybe the blowhards are right after all.

Seriously, it is virtually impossible to read a big-city daily anywhere in the country without becoming infuriated over the lack of balance, over the left-leaning opinion pieces masquerading as news stories, over the insults to reader intelligence, over the same shopworn New York Times formula followed across the land, and over the industry’s affection for big government. With the demise of a competing daily in most big-city markets, the industry has gone from being an admired government watchdog to being a disdained government lapdog, at least in conservative and libertarian eyes.

An example: Last year, The Arizona Republic had a long front-page story about the state’s budget crisis and proposed cuts in the state budget. The story quoted 12 people who were either on the government payroll or who received government entitlements. Naturally, all of the quoted people were opposed to the cuts.

The story did not quote one taxpayer who thought that the cuts were a good idea. Not one out of a state of five million people. Not one! The result was that a half-million readers only got one side of the issue: the pro-tax side. Typical.

I and others immediately sent e-mails to the reporter and to the chain-of-command at the newspaper. No response. No apology. No admission of violating journalism standards. And worse, no change in how stories are covered.

The trend of crossing the firewall between news and opinion has accelerated so much that news reporters now author op-ed pieces on the editorial pages, where their opinions reveal that they are indeed liberal. For example, a news reporter recently wrote the lead opinion piece in a Sunday edition of The Arizona Republic. The piece, which was about the growth of metro Phoenix, revealed the author’s bias against suburbia and the auto, and her bias for public transit and for limits on growth.

The same biases can be found in almost every big-city daily, as if every journalist across the land has been indoctrinated in the same liberal dogma. Perhaps Professor Overholser can explain how this happens.

Never mind. I’ll explain it to her. You see, Professor Overholser, journalism students are taught the simple basics of journalism and the standard politically-corect pabulum found on college campuses, but they are not taught economics, science or the philosophical and historical foundations of capitalism and our constitutional republic. As a result, they know how to sanitize stories about race, how to write a simple declarative sentence, how to check sources, and how to ask who, what, why, when and how. But they don’t know enough to recognize economic and scientific hokum when they see it.

Since schools of journalism aren’t going to change, it is up to newspapers to change. The change that would have the most impact is for newspapers to publish a detailed daily critique of their previous day’s coverage on page two, written by a non-employee from outside the cloister. Circulation would increase as newspapers recaptured the market share lost to talk-radio and other non-mainstream media.

Unfortunately, as demostrated by Enron and the Catholic Church, insular organizations don’t allow insiders to come inside and judge them until it’s too late.

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Mr. Cantoni is an author, columnist and consultant. He can be reached at

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